From conceivable ice volcanoes to winding moons, NASA’s New Horizons science team is deliberating more than 50 thrilling detections about Pluto at this week’s 47th Annual Meeting of the American Astronomical Society’s Division for Planetary Sciences in National Harbor, Maryland.

“The New Horizons mission has taken what we thought we knew about Pluto and turned it upside down,” said Jim Green, director of planetary science at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “It’s why we explore — to satisfy our innate curiosity and answer deeper questions about how we got here and what lies beyond the next horizon.”

Pluto Flyby

Using New Horizons images of Pluto’s surface to make 3-D topographic maps, scientists discovered that two of Pluto’s mountains, informally named Wright Mons and Piccard Mons, could be ice volcanoes. The color depicts changes in elevation, blue indicating lower terrain and brown showing higher elevation. Green terrains are at intermediate heights.

For one such innovation, New Horizons geologists pooled images of Pluto’s shallow to make 3-D maps that designate two of Pluto’s most idiosyncratic foothills could be cry volcanoes — ice volcanoes that might have been vigorous in the contemporary geological past.

“It’s hard to imagine how rapidly our view of Pluto and its moons are evolving as new data stream in each week. As the discoveries pour in from those data, Pluto is becoming a star of the solar system,” said mission Principal Investigator Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado. “Moreover, I’d wager that for most planetary scientists, any one or two of our latest major findings on one world would be considered astounding. To have them all is simply incredible.”

The two cry volcano applicants are big topographies gaging tens of miles or kilometers cross-ways and numerous miles or kilometers tall.

“These are big mountains with a large hole in their summit, and on Earth that generally means one thing — a volcano,” said Oliver White, New Horizons postdoctoral researcher at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California. “If they are volcanic, then the summit depression would likely have formed via collapse as material is erupted from underneath. The strange hummocky texture of the mountain flanks may represent volcanic flows of some sort that have traveled down from the summit region and onto the plains beyond, but why they are hummocky, and what they are made of, we don’t yet know.”

Though their arrival is similar to volcanoes on Earth that spew melted rock, ice volcanoes on Pluto are predictable to produce a somewhat melted slurry of materials such as water ice, nitrogen, ammonia, or methane. If Pluto shows to have volcanoes, it will deliver a significant new sign to its geologic and atmospheric development.

“After all, nothing like this has been seen in the deep outer solar system,” said Jeffrey Moore, New Horizons Geology, Geophysics and Imaging team leader, at Ames.


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